Holding at RAF Hemswell - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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Holding at RAF Hemswell

During my disembarkation leave at home in Wakefield, I received a letter from the RAF enclosing a railway warrant and instructing me to report to RAF Hemswell in Lincolnshire on 13 March 1956. I was rather surprised by this order because I had expected to go to the Aircrew Selection Centre at Hornchurch more or less straight away after my leave. Two train journeys were needed: one from Wakefield Westgate to Doncaster on a slow train and thence on an even slower train, on which I appeared to be the only passenger, to Gainsborough Lea Road. I was wearing my best blue uniform because it was required in those days to report to new stations 'properly dressed', that is, in No 1 Home Dress. After stepping down onto the platform I approached a station porter (remember them?) who, in answer to my question, silently pointed to a sign which instructed RAF personnel arriving on posting or detachment and wanting transport to RAF Hemswell to telephone, reversing the charges, and wait.

It took about an hour for a three-ton truck to arrive for me. I sat up front with the driver for a journey of about seven miles along a narrow winding road which ended with a steep climb in low gear up what is known as the Lincoln Cliff, part of the escarpment which runs unbroken, apart from short breaks at Ancaster and Lincoln city, for 50 miles north-south through central Lincolnshire from Grantham to the Humber estuary. At the top of the hill, the huge airfield spread out before me on the left hand side. We didn't meet another vehicle at any point during that trip in the three-ton truck. I remember that because I commented on the lack of traffic to my driver as we drew up at the Hemswell guardroom. "You're in Lincolnshire now," he said with a grin, "Nothing ever happens here."
Left: This is an old map of former-RAF Hemswell. The black line going from left to right is the present-day A631 with Gainsborough eight miles off to the left and Caenby Corner about two miles off to the right. I had travelled along this road in 1951 when I was on my way from Salford to Louth for a country holiday at a fruit and vegetable cannery with one of my school friends and his family. (See this page - opens in a new window.) Many of the ground shots for the 1964 film 'The Dam Busters' were filmed on Hemswell airfield. The airfield grass areas are now an industrial and retail trading estate, but the hangars are still standing. According to a Google article: "The former station officers' mess is now known as Hemswell Court and provides an elegant venue for weddings, banqueting and conference facilities"

Initially I was allocated to work in the Ground Radio Flight and I was soon happily employed helping to maintain the VHF equipment on which I had been trained at Locking. My Boss was a very friendly Engineering Branch squadron leader, who knew, of course, that I was at Hemswell awaiting a summons to the Aircrew Selection Centre. He told me, to my dismay, that there could be a delay of several months waiting for that summons but he said he would fix it for me to have a familiarisation trip in one of the station's aircraft so I would have something to talk about at Hornchurch. That was very thoughtful of him and I was grateful. He was as good as his word and on 23 March I went for a trip in a Lincoln bomber, a post-war development of the famous Lancaster. It was not a thrilling sortie.
My diary entry for this event was very brief because of the security considerations we were warned about every day.
The aircraft I flew in was unpressurised and all the crew wore oxygen masks throughout the trip - but no-one had supplied me with one. No-one had provided me with a parachute either and even if one was stowed away at the rear of the aircraft no-one had mentioned that - or told me how to use it. I was able to wander through the aircraft at will but to be truthful it was all rather boring, very noisy and exceedingly cold. I watched each of the crew members at work. I went into the nose compartment and laid down full length so that I could have a look through the bomb-aimer's window, but we were flying high above the clouds and the ground was invisible. I stood watching the pilots for a few minutes but they showed no inclination to talk to me and there was nothing to see through the windscreen except blue sky. Finally I settled down in the galley area where it was quite warm. It was a very long five hours. None of the crew took any notice of me before, during, or after the flight.

Security was very important at Hemswell because the station was part of Bomber Command and it was the early days of the RAF's nuclear bomber force - the UK's independent nuclear deterrent. As a result, my diary entries about RAF matters were very short.

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